‘Caitlin Can’t Remember’ N.C. teen going through life with anterograde amnesia after sports accident

GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) - Caitlin Little was always athletic and precocious.

Caitlin Little

“Caitlin started walking at 7 months old, running at 8 months old,” her mother Jennifer told FOX 8. “So, Caitlin doesn't sit around waiting for anything.”

Caitlin was part of Southeast Guilford High School’s cross country program, and it was there that everything changed.

“Thursday, 5 p.m., Oct. 12, 2017,” said Jennifer, with a smile that denotes so much sadness. “Pretty easy to remember.”

That was the day at practice when someone stumbled and hit Caitlin in the head, leaving her with a concussion that lasted far longer than anyone – even the doctors who examined her – thought it would.

“(The neurologist) called what he recommended, ‘cocooning,’” her father Chris said. “Cocoon her, protect her from anything very stimulating that might induce more headaches. He said, 'Well, OK, this looks pretty bad. But, in my experience,' he said, '90 percent of these resolve themselves in three weeks.'”

“That was the magic number, three weeks,” Jennifer said. “We just need to make it to three weeks.”

But three weeks passed and then three months. She wasn’t getting better. And now, 16 months after the incident, Caitlin can remember most of what happens on any given day, but her brain resets overnight and, each morning, she wakes up with no memory of the day before.

Yes, like the movie, “50 First Dates.” Only, a happy ending could be written for the movie. For Caitlin and her family, this is real life.

So, for the last nearly 500 days, her father wakes her up each morning and tells her what day it is and what happened all those months ago that robbed her of her memory.

“I'm always afraid that she's going to jump out of bed and tell me, 'It's wrong' and, 'It can't be.' And, why am I lying to her? So I'm always very hesitant every day when I do it, but it's my job. I have to tell her,” her dad said.

When asked if Caitlin has ever pushed back, he said, “The most that she's ever done is act very, very surprised. Or say something like, 'How can that be?' And when she does that, I explained to her that she has a journal. It's on her desk. She has Post-It Notes, read those and if she has any questions, come and see me in 15, 20 minutes.”

And when asked if it's heartbreaking every morning?

“Every time.”

Episode 2

How do you navigate a world that is always changing when your knowledge of it can’t?

Caitlin Little was mastering her world until one day, during her freshman year at Southeast Guilford High School, a cross country teammate accidentally hit her in the side of the head, leaving Caitlin with a traumatic brain injury deep enough that, to this day, her brain resets each night and she has no memory of the day before.

“When she first got hurt, we were OK with it because everybody was like, 'Oh, yeah, two weeks, you're good,'” her mom, Jennifer Little, told FOX 8. “And then I was told three weeks is that critical moment - if she's not better in three weeks, you're in for the long haul. And three weeks passed and we weren't better.”

She did get better over the first six months, but she has been stuck at that level since April 2018 and has had to develop ways to cope in a world that changes while her memory can’t add new information.

“[I have to be] very organized. So I have lots of Post-It notes that say, ‘Hey, let's do this,’ or, ‘This is new,’ or things to help me out. So, it's not as hard as I'd imagine it'd be without them,” Caitlin said.

Because of her condition, Caitlin wakes up each morning thinking it’s Oct. 13, 2017 - the day after the accident.

“Hey, sweetheart,” says her dad, Chris, softly, each morning. And then he has to break the news, “You got hit on the head during cross country practice and you’ve been out of things for a while.”

It's an odd thing for anyone to hear.

“I get plagued by confusion most often, wanting to know, ‘Well, how did that happen?’” Caitlin said. But she finds a way to understand and move on.

Episode 3

There are few things so universal as a parent wanting a good education for their child.

And into her freshman year at Southeast Guilford High School, Chris and Jennifer Little had their second child, Caitlin, right on track.

“She was breezing by in class, she would always participate in class, her assignments were on point," Kenya Jenkins, one of her teachers, told FOX8. “Caitlin - she was so phenomenal before the accident.”

"The accident."

That was in October of Caitlin’s freshman year. She got hit in the head accidentally by another runner at cross country practice one day, resulting in anterograde amnesia.

After trying to rest for three weeks or so, her parents thought trying to regain her routine might help, so, on the advice of doctors, Caitlin returned to classes. But, from the beginning, her parents understood it might be futile.

“Everything she's doing in school - she's going through the motions of school and that's great, she wants to do it, she wants to perform but the next day, it's a complete reset, a blank slate,” her father Chris said.

“Generally, you thought, ‘Well, OK, we've dealt with these, before,’” said Southeast Guilford Principal Mark Seagraves.

The school has done everything it can possibly think to do to assist Caitlin. Not just all of her teachers, but the administrative staff and others meet regularly and go well out of their way to ensure she has the best chance to succeed.

But not everything has gone as they had hoped.

"Twenty-three years in the business, I'm not sure I've seen anything or experienced anything like this, before,” Seagraves said.

Among those assigned to help Caitlin is Tracy Helms, a special education teacher assistant whose picture – just like all of Caitlin's other teachers and helpers – is in Caitlin’s main binder, with a description of who they are. Helms says, simply, “Your buddy.”

Helms helps Caitlin get where she needs to go and do what she has to do. But, even though Caitlin has met Helms every school day this past year and a half, each morning when Caitlin sees her, it’s like she’s seeing her for the first time.

WGHP asked Helms what it’s like repeating that every day.

"Every day. Every day,” she says, with heartbreak in her voice. “I come in and meet her and she doesn't know who I am. Every day, she doesn't know where her seat is in this class; she doesn't know who her teacher is. Every day is fresh and new to her, just like it's never been seen before.”

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